After spending some quality time with RIM's in-production BlackBerry PlayBook at CES, I can tell you it's a beautiful 7-inch tablet. A sharp, high-resolution screen, pleasing rubberized perimeter, and gesture-based interface converge to create a piece of electronic equipment that I would proudly make my mini-computing companion. (Hands-on CNET videos here and here.)
However, the PlayBook comes with several thick strings attached that are awkward enough to trip up prospective tablet-buyers.
No 3G without a BlackBerry
The tautest tripwire pertains to data. Many top-tier tablets come in Wi-Fi and data (3G) versions. For a little less, you can buy the Wi-Fi version and access Web content (from apps, e-mail, and the browser) whenever you're connected to a Wi-Fi network. For a little more, you can often buy a 3G-capable model--and a carrier's monthly data plan--that lets you access the Internet so long as there's coverage.
RIM, on the other hand, has decided to sell the PlayBook as a Wi-Fi-only device. The only way to access 3G data on the PlayBook will be through a BlackBerry smartphone.
Tethering the PlayBook to a BlackBerry will work wirelessly through Bluetooth pairing, but it means that your BlackBerry needs to be powered on for you to use 3G on your PlayBook. On one hand, using your phone as a portable hotspot is handy--but only if you already own a BlackBerry smartphone. On the other, hotspot tethering also drains a phone's resources.
No native e-mail, calendar either
A 3G data connection isn't the sole thing you'll give up if you want use the PlayBook without a BlackBerry. Without tethering, you're out of luck accessing BlackBerry's secure e-mail client, the calendar, BlackBerry Messenger, and the address book. Sure, there will be Web apps that Wi-Fi-only customers can use instead, like Gmail.com and Google Calendar.
Missing out on native e-mail apps may not bother some non-Blackberry-owning PlayBook buyers who wouldn't be using a RIM-controlled e-mail address or calendar anyway, though it doesn't hurt RIM to offer all buyers a native experience.
Those with a BlackBerry on hand, however, will be able to use the BlackBerry Bridge software to access contacts and content, plus transfer files between the smartphone and tablet. Tethering will let companies that supply BlackBerrys to their employees also extend IT policies to the PlayBook.
So, who is the PlayBook for?
With one set of options for BlackBerry owners and another set for everyone else, RIM seems to have a disjointed, unrealistic vision of the PlayBook's audience. But that's not the case. RIM knows exactly who it wants to buy the tablet--everyone.
The problem is that RIM can't get the kinks worked out with things like e-mail--controlled by one set of software on the smartphone--in the new BlackBerry Tablet OS technology in time for the PlayBook's release. What we're left with are work-arounds until the OS further develops.
Because of 3G tethering, current BlackBerry owners will benefit from the PlayBook most, at least at the tablet's launch. There's an even more specialized case for corporate BlackBerry users, whose companies could control secured e-mail and calendar items on the tablet as well as on the phone.
Prospective PlayBook buyers with other cell phones have less incentive to invest in a PlayBook over an Apple iPad, Motorola Xoom, or other tablet, despite the very competitive specs. Even if they predominantly use Web mail and Wi-Fi, and don't give a hoot about missing out on BlackBerry Messenger, many people I've talked to still feel the alienating effects of being told what they can and can't have. That's not encouraging for a company that's trying to appeal to first-time owners of any BlackBerry product.
4G, updates ahead
That isn't to say that RIM will be forever mired by tethering troubles. The company did confirm a 4G model coming out later this spring with Sprint, which opens the data door for those first-time buyers who don't own BlackBerrys. RIM PlayBook product manager Ryan Bidan has also mentioned the possibility of future firmware updates that might soothe some of these launching pains.
Still, if RIM doesn't carefully manage its perception, the PlayBook could well remain a hidden gem. That's one of the last things the Canadian mobile hardware-maker could want. RIM, which is struggling to remain relevant in an ecosystem largely dominated by iPhone and Android, has already poured research and manufacturing dollars into bringing the PlayBook to market as a big-time competitor.
Of course, it's far too early to eulogize the PlayBook, and indeed, I hope I don't have to. The tablet won't hit shelves until later this fiscal quarter (Q1), which gives RIM time yet to nail down a strategy for attracting and keeping new customers.